Fifteen years after the demise of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet-style communist regimes in Eastern Central Europe, there exists a sufficient time perspective to assess some of the more complex consequences of the end of the Cold War.
While most post-communist countries in Eastern Central Europe were able to undergo a more or less successful transformation to democracy and market economy, this is not the case of Russia. Much of the current commentary on Russia is focussed on the personality of Putin, sometimes juxtaposed to that of Yeltsin: but this is superficial and overlooks some of the systemic challenges facing Russia.
Coming out of communism, Russia had to undergo a four-fold transformation, and the ability to carry out these changes simultaneously was obviously difficult, especially as the steps to be undertaken for one facet of transformation were sometimes opposed to those necessary for some of the others. These were: a political transformation, an economic one, a dismantling of an empire and the creation of a nation-state. Other post-communist countries had to undergo only the first two.
Let us start with the two last items - the end of an empire and the creation of a nation-state.
The imperial nature of the Soviet Union was not an outcome of its ideology, but of the heritage left by the Czarist Empire.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, one of the institutional expressions of its political disintegration were the national movements in several of its republics - primarily the Baltic republics as well as Georgia - which used the relative liberalisation and electoral opportunities offered by Perestroika to bring to power national movements ultimately aimed at independence.
The quasi-federal structure of the Soviet Union, mostly a sham under communism, became an effective vehicle at the hand of these "National Fronts", and under these conditions, democratisation led almost necessarily to secession. When the Soviet Union ultimately collapsed, it was not only the one-party state which collapsed - but the country itself: hence the 15 successor states to the one Soviet Union.
But this was not the end of the story, as various ethnic and religious minorities exist also within the boundaries of Russia proper, or more accurately, the Russian Federation.
The national liberation war of the Chechens - which has deteriorated into a ghoulish mixture of nationalism, violent terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and sheer banditry - is a legacy of both the Czarist imperial project in the Caucasus and the Soviet system which granted the Chechens an autonomous republic within the Russia Federation.
Similar secessionist potentialities, based on ethnic and religious identities, exist in other regions of Russia, and the brutality with which Moscow is trying to suppress the Chechen insurrection is obviously grounded in the understanding that if the Chechens secede, then Russia's territorial integrity will be threatened in other autonomous republics: the first signs are already evident in neighbouring Ingushetia and in Daghestan.
The war in Chechnya has obviously had far-reaching consequences for the chances of internal democratisation and political liberalisation in Russia, and so much of the (weak) liberal voices opposing Putin see the war in Chechnya as a litmus test for the future of a liberal Russia. On the other hand, it is the war which helps mobilise support for a "strong leader" among the majority Russian ethnic population.
The reverse of this coin is the fact that Russia has never been a nation-state: unlike countries like Poland or Hungary, which, in the absence of Soviet rule, could revert to the historical heritage - real or imagined - of their national state traditions. Such a tradition does not exist in Russia.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
7 posts so far.